Working from Hans Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the Polish musical The Lure (Córki dancingu—literally, “daughters of the dance club”) tells the tale of two seductive mermaid sisters: Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), who beckon men to their watery graves with both their attractive tops and their willowy voices. These unsuspecting men, often drunk, think they are in for a roll in the waves while a much more grisly fate awaits.
But when the sisters enchant a local rock group, they decide not to feast but to follow them onto dry land, where their tails transform into legs, hips, and a crotch as smooth as a Barbie doll. Splash a little water on them, and the massive scaly fishtail returns. Why, a trick like that would kill on stage! So the nightclub house manager (Zygmunt Malanowicz), where the band plays, decides to put the girls to work in an all-singing, all stripping act with the sisters reduced to sideshow material.
Golden doesn’t seem to mind the objectification much—it allows her to pick off drunks one at a time. Silver, on the other hand, has fallen for one of the musicians, Mietek (Jakub Gierszał), and just like Ariel, she’ll do just about anything to become a real girl.
Of all the movies you see this year, The Lure will undoubtedly be the oddest. Since neither of these mermaids comes with PG-rate seashell bras, they spend the majority of the movie topless. It can be a little off-putting at first—as does the scene where Silver, still a mermaid, offers sex with Mietek—but there’s a rhyme to director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s reason. The Lure is lightly based on her youth. She grew up in the nightclub her mother ran, and Smoczynska sees the trials and tribulations these mermaids face as an allegory for the immigrant struggle, particularly sexual abuse from the town locals who objectify and take advantage of them during their crucial coming-of-age period. Combine that with the vast corruption Poland faced during the 1980s, and the picture Smoczynska paints is pretty grim.
But that makes The Lure sound like a dour and depressing experience, which it isn’t in the slightest. Half the fun of this full-blown choreographed musical is that you can’t believe what you are seeing. The other half is watching Golden dispatch leering drunks. Some people get what they deserve. Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.